There’s more than a bit of irony in seeing the Disney logo appear before the long-awaited film adaptation of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s musical deconstruction of fairy tale archetypes. The studio’s animated canon has often been criticized for smoothing out the wrinkles of folk-tales in search of unequivocal happy endings. Indeed, Disney’s interpretations of the Brothers Grimm tales and other traditional stories might be most responsible for launching critiques like Sondheim’s. In recent years, however, Disney has embraced a type of self-awareness in films from Enchanted to Maleficent, an agenda that dovetails with a commercial climate that favours remakes, reboots, and other methods of telling old stories in new ways. Where Into the Woods was once a bold outlier, it now represents sound financial strategy.
That doesn’t mean the film is any less deserving of an adaptation that recognizes its pioneering ambition, and director Rob Marshall is able to preserve much of the musical’s thematic richness in its transition from stage to screen. The film imagines several famous characters from folk literature – Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack the Giant-Killer (Daniel Huttlestone), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her prince (Chris Pine), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) – suddenly crossing and re-crossing paths when a young baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) try to gather the necessary talismans to satisfy a witch (Meryl Streep) whose curse has rendered the couple childless. Yet more impressive than Woods‘ narrative plate-spinning is its sharp commentary on the morals embedded in these stories, exposing them to real-world ambivalence and uncertainty that troubles their supposed function as instruction manuals for romance, redemption, grief, or any number of emotional experiences.
Into the Woods successfully walks a fine line, balancing its darker, more knowing elements with its broad appeal as an uplifting, insightful, and often humorous take on well-known characters. Yet while the film makes very few isolated missteps (Johnny Depp’s hammy turn as the Big Bad Wolf being the most glaring) and gives its talented cast plenty of individual moments to shine, it still feels like there is some wasted potential here. Marshall has trouble finding a rhythm with the interlocking stories, which don’t track as easily outside the more intimate confines of a Broadway theatre. He also misses certain opportunities to tailor the material to the medium, particularly near the end of the movie, where the luxury of showing instead of telling should probably trump any sense of fidelity to the stage experience.
Nonetheless, similar to the divisive 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables (which I quite liked), it’s not the technical, nit-picky stuff that matters in a musical adaptation. It’s the emotional journey that counts, and Into the Woods sustains a live-wire excitement on the strength of Sondheim’s and screenwriter James Lapine’s moving observations about the joys and sorrows of love, family, and filial responsibility. Much like the fairy tales it re-imagines, the movie is not about the veracity of the its external details but the internal changes it provokes, willing us to recognise some part of it that we can also see in ourselves.